Texas' two Republican U.S. senators, one a former campaign committee chair and the other a once and possibly future presidential candidate, are taking vastly different approaches to Capitol Hill’s rapidly approaching immigration showdown.
Senate Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, says he’s eager to get to work with Democrats and Republicans on a “thoughtful and compassionate solution” for the 700,000 Dreamers who are “our neighbors… [living] every day not quite sure of what the future will mean.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who became a national conservative hero during his 2016 presidential run, hopes Congress does not “pass an amnesty bill providing amnesty and a path to citizenship for millions of people here illegally along with chain migration.”
Congress is giving itself less than three weeks to begin serious consideration of how to deal with young people currently living in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. President Donald Trump plans to end that program March, which could affect roughly 124,000 DACA recipients living in Texas.
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It’s not the senators’ desired policy outcomes that are far apart. Congress’ proposals include paths to legal status for DACA recipients in exchange for increased border security. Lawmakers also seek to limit which relatives qualify for family visas, addressing the policy immigration control advocates call “chain migration.”
Even NumbersUSA, a leading immigration control group that considers any legal status for illegal immigrants “amnesty,” supports a proposal from House conservatives that would allow DACA recipients to reapply for temporary permits in exchange for other immigration law changes.
But immigration is an issue with an outsized impact on Texas’s border and burgeoning Latino population, and the two senators’ approaches couldn’t be more different.
Both Cruz and Cornyn agree on this much: They vehemently defend Trump’s decision to end the DACA program, which President Barack Obama created through executive action.
Cornyn has been scrambling for months to reach a solution with Democrats. As a two-time chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, he’s been a vocal proponent of welcoming minorities into the party, and beat his Democratic opponent’s performance with Latino voters in his 2014 re-election bid.
Cornyn holed up in his whip office off the Senate floor with White House legislative liaison Marc Short until late in the night before the government shut down early Saturday. After the government reopened Monday, Cornyn traveled to the White House to begin another round of negotiations.
Senate leaders reached an agreement Monday to temporarily fund the government in exchange for a guarantee from GOP leaders to bring an immigration bill to a vote on the Senate floor if no DACA deal was secured by Feb. 8.
“I have a personal interest in making sure we come up with a bipartisan solution for these young adults who face such uncertainty,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor Monday after the government had reopened.
The Monday agreement would allow members of both parties to offer amendments on an immigration overhaul — something lawmakers in Washington have repeatedly attempted and failed to pass in the past.
Even if the Senate reaches an agreement, which would require both Republicans and Democrats in order to get the 60 votes needed to limit debate, the measure would face tough challenges in the GOP-controlled House, where conservatives have more clout.
“I’ve been through a couple immigration fights before, they are emotional and there’s a lot of attention and a lot of intensity involved,” Cornyn said. “But what I hope is we are committed to getting a result, something that will pass the House and that the president will sign.”
Cornyn’s seat is up for re-election in 2020. Cruz faces a contested re-election race this year against Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas that is likely to be determined by the enthusiasm level of Republican voters this fall.
“I think at the end of the day, people are going to care about what happens on DACA, what happens on border security,” said Texas GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “It's the ultimate agreement that's going to matter for the midterms.”
Cruz has been far less visible on the issue than Cornyn. Cruz’s comments Monday were the first televised remarks he’d offered on an issue that played prominently in his presidential campaign.
“I think there’s a lot of things we should do on immigration,” said Cruz. “I think we need to improve border security, I think we need to pass ... legislation I introduced providing for mandatory minimum sentences for aggravated felons who repeatedly illegally enter this country.”
He urged his colleagues not to pass an immigration bill that’s “inconsistent with the promises” Republicans “made [to] the American people in 2016."
During that race, Cruz notably told a DACA recipient he believed she should be sent back to her home country. NumbersUSA endorsed him over Trump in the primary.
“We certainly would welcome his role and his leadership,” said NumbersUSA’s director of research, Eric Ruark.
As Senate negotiations heat up, Ruark added, “I would expect us to hear more from Senator Cruz.”